The Importance of Black Professors

The first group of responses to George Yancy’s New York Times op ed piece that I want to talk about are those responses which deny that he could be an intellectual or even someone who reasons. He received comments like: “This belief that niggers even reason is blatant pseudo-intellectualism,” “The concept of there being an intellectual Negro is a joke,” “Another uppity Nigger. Calling a Nigger a professor is like calling White Black and Wet Dry,” “This coon is a philosopher in the same way Martin King was a PHD and the same way that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are ‘Reverends’,” “Just another jive assed nigger with a new way to pimp,” and “Hey Georgie boy. You’re the fucking racist, asshole. You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for affirmative action.” The mere fact that he is a professor at a prestigious university is a threat both to their stereotypes and to them personally.

I have experienced this myself. In my third year of teaching I went to the wedding of a dear white friend of mine. As I was mingling with the other guests an inebriated white guest came over to me and asked me who I was. I introduced my self and said I was a professor at Bowdoin College. He looked at me in astonishment. “A black intellectual,” he said, “I didn’t believe there could be such a thing.” Before I could respond another guest who could see what was going on, came over and hustled him away to break up the conversation. Naive historian that I am I was about to explain that there had been black intellectuals and college professors for well over a century and a half and mention Alexander Crummell, Carter Woodson, E. Franklin Frazier and W.E.B. DuBois. Upon later reflection I realized that this response would have been woefully inadequate. Not only wouldn’t he have heard of any of these people, their existence wouldn’t have made a dent in his incredulity. He presumed that black people were incapable of intellectual thought and that was a fixed part of his worldview.

I had never given a thought to the fact that there were people like him. I had spent ten years of my life in undergraduate or graduate school learning from black academics among others and the last couple in the rarefied air of a college where my colleagues never challenged (at least to my face) my right to be there. I held power over students so their challenges directly to me were minimal, although I had no way of knowing what they said in private. I remember one morning I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that students reacted differently to African American professors than they did to white professors. At my first class, a class of less than 20 students, I began class by asking if it made a difference to them that I was an African American professor. They hemmed and hawed a bit before one young lady said, “you are so completely yourself that the fact that you are an African American does enter into our thinking about you.” That was one of the nicest things a student ever said to me. It was not the “I don’t see color” bs that you sometimes hear, but an acknowledgement that being an African American was so much a part of who I was that they could not single it out as a defining characteristic.

Nevertheless the incident at the wedding revealed a truth to me. Part of my role as a professor was to show that black folk could in fact be professors and that this might, I say might, influence some to change their stereotypes of black people. When Barack Obama was elected president he is supposed to have explained to his daughters that he would be the first black president. One of them is supposed to have said “Wow, you better be good.” I always felt the same way. I was usually over-prepared for class and I cared about the quality that colleagues would see me, and later the Africana Studies program that I headed, exhibit. Like most folks it took me a while to fully learn my craft, but I had learned even before this that you should always try your best because you never knew who could be watching you. A couple of years ago, seven years after I had taught my final class, my college invited me back to participate in a teach-in they were having. I gave a lecture on jazz, Motown, hip-hop and the environment. At the end one first-year student came over to me and said that was the best presentation she had ever seen. She had only been in college six weeks at that point so I took what she said with a grain of salt. I did take it as a sign that after 30 years I knew what I was doing and had learned how to do it.

I have also learned that it is important that I did so. Yes, our scholarship is important. It usually adds new perspectives to our fields and will be here after we’ve gone. All that work we put into our institutions is also important, as is the teaching of our students. However for some folks who will never read our books or hear us speak or show up in our classes, we still have a contribution to make by simply existing. Whether we realize it or not, whether we want to or not, whether we embrace it or not, we stand as a counterargument to the demeaning stereotypes of African American intelligence.

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